Taking Stock and Stocking Up

It’s no coincidence that I’ve been AWOL between Labour Day weekend and the first week of December this year.  Can you say “School semester?!”  Sadly, this was one of those semesters that just didn’t leave me 2 hours free to put a post together.  I’ve considered dropping the blog altogether, but that doesn’t feel right either.  So my goal is to post once a month or so and see where that takes me.

The fact is, there’s been lots going on around here, and I want to share it.  It’s been a busy and productive fall, and all the reading and grappling with the transitions underway have had some transformative impacts on our lives.  There are also still many things that I remain unsettled and anxious about.  I continue to swing regularly between despair and acceptance about what’s happening in the world, and my homestead work calms me to some degree.  But I also recognize that the real work needs to happen at the community level, and I’m reflecting on how I want to participate in that broader picture.

In the meantime, I thought I should report a bit on what we accomplished this fall!  One of my goals after last summer’s chicken-ravaging of my winter garden was to do a better job of extending our garden’s production for as long as possible.  About halfway through the season, I also got serious about preserving and stocking up the pantry, even if that meant buying some local produce from off the property.  The results have been so heartening–and a giant leap forward!

The Well-Stocked Larder
The Well-Stocked Larder

This fall, we are looking at a pantry with

  • 48 pints of thick tomato sauce, plus some stewed tomatoes and salsa
  • almost 100 lbs of potatoes stored–enough to get us to spring, if I can keep them from sprouting!
  • umpteen jars of assorted pickles: cucumber, zucchini, beets
  • canned cherries and peaches, frozen berries, and umpteen jars of jam
  • a decent supply of onions, as well as a garden full of leeks, some garlic
  • a garden bed full of huge rutabagas and parsnips
  • a successful patch of cabbage and (hopefully!) brussel sprouts–enough cabbage til May
  • 40 lbs of winter squash
  • a few lbs of stored dry pinto and fava beans
  • a covered bed of salad greens that we should be able to eat from for another month or so
  • a solid patch of healthy chard also covered to pull from for another month or two
  • a decent bed of winter kale
  • a freezer full of corn, green beans, chicken (ours and some heritage roosters bartered with a friend)
  • eggs and…a half-side of pork raised by a farming colleague!

And…from a half-dozen espaliered and dwarf apple trees: 450 lbs of apples!!

The bulk of the apple harvest with the last of the fall tomatoes
The bulk of the apple harvest with the last of the fall tomatoes

These have been taken off to the local u-brew to make cider (we don’t yet have a press/grinder), frozen for deserts, and made into apple sauce.  We’re still working our way through the last of the processing; I’d also like to try drying some slices by the wood stove.

In other words, we’ve got enough of our home-produced food to keep us going for a number of months yet, supplemented by a few basic grocery staples: rice, oats, pasta, bread, milk, cheese, etc.   I have accepted that our homestead (for now!) will not produce grains and dairy.  But I’m so impressed that we’ve produced so much else, and very curious to see how long it lasts!

As the December break rolls around, I’m setting new garden goals and getting ready to order seeds.  I want to improve my carrot and beet production, and continue to clear brush and ornamentals to make room for more food.  I got an expanded strawberry patch and an asparagus bed set up last year, but I killed off most of the blueberry starts 😦 .   And I’m planning next year to make a concerted effort to save seeds.  We managed a few beans and sunflower seeds this year, but I want to start settling on my favourite varieties of my crops and starting to strategically and systematically save seeds from those where viable.  Right now we just save a few once the plants are done and the harvest over, but that isn’t actually selecting for the best traits!

Beyond the garden, we’re also starting to think more strategically about our overall homestead and its sustainability and resilience.  We continue to count our woodstove as one of our biggest blessings, and with its help, we’re trying to reduce our energy use even more.  The Skipper has decided that using the dishwasher–though a high efficiency model–can’t possibly be as energy-efficient as heating water on the woodstove to handwash dishes.  We’ve bought some cast-iron enameled pots to experiment with cooking on the woodstove.  In BC, we have a two-tiered billing system for our electricity, and the Skipper has set us the challenge of trying to get our consumption down to the first tier: about 22 kwhrs per day.  We bought a bigger freezer to accommodate the food storage, and with a new energy-star model, we got rid of an older extra fridge and the small freezer and are now using less energy with more space. Win!

Also on the priority list is some rainwater catchment.  We’re on a good well here, but resilience is about redundancy, and at the moment we are completely reliant on our well and it’s electric pump.  There are manual pumps available, and we might also look into one, but rainwater storage makes a lot more sense as low-hanging fruit.  I’ve been angling for this for months now, but the push came last night, when the Skipper said a colleague of his is stuck at the moment because his pump went, and it’s (of course) thousands of dollars and a huge hassle to have someone come with a machine to pull out the pump (!), repair or replace it and put it back in.  That’s the kind of personal emergency that Sharon Astyk reminds us about.  I don’t know how we would pay for that kind of problem at the moment, and of course, while all of that decision-making and work is in progress, you have no water!!  There’s a strong case for a back-up plan!

There’s lots more to share, but I’ll stop there for now.  Hope you are also looking forward to a winter with a full woodshed, a warm fire, and tasty food shared with good company.

Life, Death and Roosters

On Sunday, we culled a rooster.

This was our big handsome Roo, a beautiful Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte rooster, who has been leader of the backyard flock for the last several months.  Roo was an excellent leader; he protected his hens from eagles and ravens and hawks and was always tame and calm around us and all our visitors.

So why did we kill him?  Because once Hen went broody, Roo started acting very aggressively toward our second rooster, Percy, who is Hen’s sweetheart.  We let it slide for a while; Percy had lots of space to get away, and there were no serious injuries.  We suspected that one of the two roos in our small flock would have to go (2 roos to 7 hens is too many, generally speaking), but they had been getting along well for months without issue.  While Hen was ensconced in the nest box, Percy was the odd man out, and we actually wondered if he might have to be the one to go.

But when the chicks hatched and started running about happily, Percy became an awesome Papa, and Roo started acting aggressively toward Hen too.  The choice became clear.

Why did we kill him?  Why not just rehome him, or sell him?  Because my views and values around death and eating meat have been transformed by raising livestock, even on this tiny scale.

I grew up in a pretty normal urban North American environment, I think.  We had the occasional pet–fish, rabbits, later a small dog.  As a child, I found my goldfish periodically belly-up  in the fish bowl, and gave up after a few replacements.  One of our rabbits disappeared–probably thanks to a raccoon–the second one was (I hate to admit it) released (to become one of the contributors to the urban feral rabbit pestilence!).  The dog was found another good home when it no longer fit my parents’ lifestyle.

One of my grandfathers died when I was a child, and I vividly remember everyone crying at the funeral.  But that was pretty much the extent of my experience of death.  I ate meat until I left home, but being vegetarian was nothing radical in 1980s and 90s Vancouver, meat in-and-of itself had no relationship with death for me, and my reasons for giving it up had only peripherally to do with animal rights.

In other words, I don’t think I had much exposure to or gave much thought to death as I grew up, nor did I feel the kind of regular, close attachment to animals that might make me feel like their deaths were inherently a horrible thing.  Death was an abstract, as was food, really, until just a few years ago.

Coming up to 4 years ago now, my father died of cancer at 57.  He was diagnosed a few years before that, and he embraced living every day of those few years he had left.  Some of the time, as he headed out with friends and family for another round on the golf course, I would forget that he was sick at all.  I remember distinctly, though, coming home one Thanksgiving and feeling with great and highly uncomfortable clarity that he and my mom had come to a deep level of understanding that he was, in fact, going to die, and I wasn’t at all there yet.

We all spent a lot of time together, in his final weeks; it was a precious and blessed time that has left me with many legacies thatcontinue to unfold.  One of those was a different understanding of death.

You see, Dad was diagnosed with a very rare cancer about which very little is known and about which very little treatment could be offered.  Fairly quickly, he was left on his own, outside of the usual cancer treatment industry, and he died at home, peacefully in bed, on his own terms.  It was the best of all possible passings, from my point of view.

In his last weeks, we talked about the fact that not so long ago, having a family member close to death and then dying in a bedroom at home would have been a normal part of life.  Just like being born at home was the normal way to be born, dying in an upstairs bedroom being cared for by one of your children and their family was the only option.  Most traditions even include a time of the family sitting with the dead body in the home while visitors pay their respects.  But when we started outsourcing seniors’ care, we also largely outsourced death, and for me, at least, death then became something strange and abstract and foreign, something that existed only in my imagination, and as such, something potentially horrifying and troubling.

Another of my father’s legacies, I now know, was the  gift of being open to the mysteries of Life and the universe and the spirit.  He was a minister, and I was raised Christian, although I wouldn’t categorise myself that way now.  His death shoved me back into spiritual journey, and I have found myself returning to many of the vaguely Buddist beliefs that shaped my worldview in my early 20s, particularly non-dual theology: the belief that God is not an old man on a mountaintop ( 🙂 ), but instead is the divine life energy present in all things.  In my mind, God is simply Life (with a capital L), creativity in its most basic desire to explode into every possible material experience.

Life is clearest to me in the garden.  Life is growth and then decay, and death might simply be the point at which life decays so much that it becomes life again.  I plant a seed, it grows into a plant which flowers in order to reproduce.  As soon as it flowers, however, the process of decay begins until the plant finally dies, at which point the decomposers take over and turn the plant into the food and soil that become another plant’s life.

In the garden, death is so clearly a necessary, transient, beautiful, and enriching phase.  There is nothing scary or horrifying about it–without the death which is the harvest of my vegetables, I would have no life.

When we first got chickens, I had no real plan for the roosters.  We talked about buying pullets–already sexed females ready to start laying–but decided to raise straight-run (unsexed) chicks to make sure that they would know us and be comfortable and tame around us.  From the beginning, the chickens were intended as a kind of pet, though certainly of a more independent kind!  I had vague ideas about letting hens live out their natural lives with us when they got too old to keep laying, and even more vague ideas of what roosters might be for; we certainly didn’t intend to keep any of them, at first.  Eat fertilized eggs? Gross!  I had equally vague understandings of chicken sex and anatomy! 🙂

As our chicks grew up, we found ourselves with the unsurprising percentage of 7 boys to our 7 girls.  We had to put one rooster down early because it developed physically lame and began to suffer.  We had no idea what we were doing, but going to a vet was not an option, and the internet was a fount of information.  Nonetheless, that death was not easy or peaceful, precisely because we were such amateurs.  The next two roosters we found another home for.

After that, though, we had to suck it up.  We started to understand what “flock management” meant.  We were the flock keepers and we had to do what was best for the health and well-being of the whole group, which at the time included younger chickens that were being hurt by rooster #4.  It was time to get comfortable with “processing”.  The Skipper fashioned a “killing cone” (the chicken is placed upside down through a cone so that the head pokes through–death throes are contained, the jugular is easily accessible, and upside down, the bird is comfortable and relaxed), took a deep breath, and we said goodbye.  The Skipper, who once worked as a commercial fisher, commented that this shouldn’t be any different than killing the thousands of fish that had crossed his path over the years…but of course it was.

That roo was packed up into the freezer, but it was a few months before we felt prepared to eat him–to bridge that gap between individual animal and food.  I had started eating small amounts of meat by this time, and I had small pieces of that roast bird as well.  I was starting to get comfortable with the idea of eating meat, although I still was (and am) uncomfortable with leaving the category of vegetarian.

Our big red Roo on Sunday was our 4th culling in about 6 months, and the process is starting to feel familiar; we are gaining confidence.  A friend–another vegetarian turned farmer–has asked us to come up to her place and show her how it’s done, and I think we were glad to go through the process ourselves one more time before sharing what we’ve learned.  This time round, we got orgainzed in advance; we knew what to expect and had learned from previous experience how to prepare.  As I helped gather materials and scrubbed the kitchen clean, I felt like I was going through another set of rituals that would have been commonplace not so very long ago (and which probably still are in many homes).  The cleaning and gathering felt appropriate to the weight and significance of the death to come and to the gratitude and humility I feel for the life-sustaining food that the death provides.

The preparations went smoothly, and I felt confident and sure.  Until it was my turn to go and collect Roo.  I got the birds into their run and put out their evening scratch, knowing that when their attention is on the ground, I can easily pick them up.  When I got everyone settled and went to pick up Roo, though, all my breath left me and the world tilted a little.  It is a powerful and uncomfortable feeling, that knowledge that you are leading an animal to death.  And so it should be!  Like saying grace before a special family gathering, saying a blessing and a prayer for forgiveness and gratitude seems the only appropriate thing to do–regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.  I took a deep breath to steady myself, and from then on, the rest of the process was straightforward.

What I’ve taken away from these cullings most of all, I realize, is that although death is the part of the process that we dread, the part we have to mentally and emotionally prepare ourselves for, the part so culturally loaded, death is in fact not the biggest part of culling.  Death, in our backyard circumstances, is extremely quick and painless: there is only a split second between alive and dead.  And now that we’re more sure of what we’re doing, there was probaly no longer than a minute between Roo blissfully eating his favorite food with his harem, and no longer being alive.  We should all be so lucky!  Compared to the hour of getting all the equipment assembled and the kitchen ready, then the hour of plucking, butchering, and disposing of the intestines, feathers, blood, etc (which I bury in the garden for lucky plants and micro-organisms to convert into more food), the actual death is the easy part!

Perhaps the biggest shift for me over these years since my father passed away and in the months of being so intimately tied to death on our wee homestead, is that I now understand in a visceral way that death is not just not an end–whether you believe in spirit or not–but that death is also not necessarily a tragedy.  When there is suffering, death is a gift.  Death was welcomed by my father; he was ready to go.  When we kill an aggressive rooster, it is a gift to our remaining flock.

For the first time in my life, I can also say with deep honesty that I am not scared of death, whether of a loved one or of my own.  Skipper and I were talking not long ago about cancer, heart disease and other dreadful ways that people we know have died over the past year or so.  He asked, as we have contemplated over the years, about how I would cope with him getting sick, how could we prevent one disease or another.  I realised in that conversation, that it no longer mattered.  Death WILL happen.  No matter when or how I or the Skipper go, it will be too soon in our life together.  The remaining partner will grieve deeply, then have to find a way to carry on, if one of us has been left behind.  Those are the truths of life; the details don’t seem that important anymore, and I’ve realized that there’s no need to live my life in fear of them.

So why did we kill big, beautiful Roo–such a proud and handsome creature?

Because he was starting to harm the flock and needed to be removed.  Because he had the best of all possible Roo lives here, and although we may have been able to find another place for him to live out his days, it’s more than likely that place would not have been as nice as this, and that’s not good enough.  Because if we had left things as they are, the two roosters would have eventually fought each other to death–Nature’s way of sorting out excess males is often brutal, painful, prolonged, and humiliating.  Because, although selling him is technically another option, roosters are not economically valuable–even high-quality heritage birds go for as little as $10.  A breeder might have taken him, but it’s more likely that he would have become food for some other family.  The 4 lbs free-range, pastured chickens that we buy from local farms around here periodically cost $14 +.  Roo dressed out at over 6 lbs.

Most importantly, though, we processed him ourselves because doing so meant his stress-free life continued right up until the moment of death; because we know his death was quick and painless;  because the meals that he will provide for us are as sacred–unique and not commodified with a price tag–to us as his life was; because his body will feed us and the garden, generating new life on the homestead.  And because, for me, this has become the ultimate definition of ethical eating.

Going Gaga for Garlic

So… I’m in trouble.

You know how you have these great ideas? I’m going to grow tomatoes from seed!  Let’s get chickens! I wonder if we could grow some different hops to make beer?  You know the ones.  Where you think, it will be so easy!  I’ll just order me a packet of tomato seeds/a trio of chicks/ a hop plant from the garden store.

And then you find out that each of these ideas has a miraculous, fascinating history and diversity entangled in historical drama and ancestral culture, and you require not only much time to explore and research, but also MUCH MORE SPACE than you originally intended.

Well, time to add garlic to that list.

Last year, I realized just how easy garlic was to grow after we harvested the volunteers that we didn’t even know we had.  Last fall, I headed to the garden store and bought the standard garlic for these parts, a porcelain hard-neck variety with impressively big bulbs developed on Gabriola Island.  I planted 30 or so cloves, and then realized I was being ridiculous–we needed way more than 30 bulbs of garlic to get us through the year!  So I went to a local farm and bought another few bulbs and planted another 35 or so cloves, so that not only would we have enough for the year, but enough seed garlic to start again this year.

And it was a great success!  I grew beautiful (if slightly rust-affected from the July rains), big bulbs that I happily cured and stored in the pantry.  I picked out my biggest ones (HUGE!) and replanted 70 or so cloves to be able to do the same again next year.  Job Done.

Then one day, I was talking to my neighbour, who told me that her hard-neck garlic hadn’t stored all that well, and that she had run out of garlic in the early spring.  Oh no!  I did a little research into the rabbit hole that is information about the history and types of garlic and came out with 2 realizations: 1) garlic history and families and breeding is incredibly complicated and I could spend a lifetime reading and never fully get my head around it, and 2) I needed me some soft-neck garlic.

A quick distillation of the facts I was able to retain: hard neck garlic has big cloves, produces yummy scapes all spring, but stores for a shorter period of time (5 months?); while softneck garlic has smaller cloves, it doesn’t produce scapes, but that means you can braid it for storage, and it stores longer.

Where was I going to find some soft-neck garlic?

Well, the Skipper and I pass a farm stand every day that is just up the road from us.  They mostly sell animal products and flowers at the stand, so we had never stopped in.  But a couple of weeks ago, we pulled in for a relish tasting that they had up.  (Yum!)  We watched their beautiful Narragansett turkeys range about (surely we could make some room for a couple of these?!) and admired the free-ranging chickens.  Adele, one of the farmers, came out and chatted with us for ages about the farm and everything they do.  Skipper bought some awesome wool socks made from her heritage-sheep wool.  Then we noticed the garlic.

Adele had 4 or 5 kinds out, all with bewildering names.  But I spotted the keyword: soft-neck.  Turns out she was selling the small cloves there inexpensively for kitchen use, but that she had a barn full of curing seed garlic that she could probably go through if I was interested.  She gave me a copy of their garlic list, and I latched on to the only name that meant anything to me from the soft-necks: Creston.  Creston is a town in the BC interior where I have cousins.  It’s as good a criteria as any!  We laughed as she agreed that when going through massive lists of available types, sometimes how the name appeals to you is the only way to narrow your choices.

I took a head of the Creston garlic home to taste, and agreed to come back for seed garlic.  Skipper and a friend and I later compared the flavour of the Creston to the porcelain that I had grown.  Wow! They were so different!  Who knew?

When I went back to meet Adele last weekend to pick up the seed garlic, I had no idea what I was getting into.  I mentioned to her that we had been amazed at the different flavours and heats available, and wouldn’t mind experimenting a little more.  She said the magic words, “well, I think I have some other types handy in the house…”  I jumped at the bait.  I came home with 5 different types of garlic: a bulb to taste and another to plant of each type  if we liked it.


From the list I had drooled over,

I can't believe I restrained myself to 5!


I picked out the Creston soft-neck, then 2 more Rocambole varieties:

Chinese Pink



Cuban Purple


The Chinese Pink is described as:

“Very early season.  Garlic lovers rejoice!  When fall planted, this extra-early-maturing variety will put fresh garlic back into your … recipes a whopping 4-6 weeks ahead of almost all others… in late May to early June.”

How cool is that?! I started to realize that if I really got organized, I could plant different varieties to stagger harvest and storage times in order to have a steady stream all year round…

The Cuban Purple:

In most years, the darkest of the Creole garlics, … a distinctly purple colour that can be almost a dusty blackish at times.  TASTE=WOW! a rich, earthy garlicky flavour with very little pungency.”

We confirm; the taste is awesome.  It has a bit of bite at first, but then quickly mellows into sweetness.  It was almost overpowered in a salad dressing, but I bet would be amazing in an aioli.  See? You need different garlic for different dishes!

Next up is a Purple Striped variety, which are described as having 8-12 cloves per bulb that keep well.  I chose the lovely Siberian Red Stripe:

Siberian Red Stripe


Are you ready? I’ve saved the best for last.  It’s an heirloom French variety that literally took my breath away when Adele brought it out.  If she’d brought it out first, I might not have taken anything else!  We have confirmed that it has a fantastic flavour, with the perfect amount of punch for salad dressings.  Adele’s catalogue description:

a French creole variety that is medium-hot… loved for its unique flavour described as a “deep sort of muskiness.”  Harvests mid-late season and stores 7-8 months.”

Except for the temptation of some of the others on the list that I may have to return to for next year (Tibetan! Tuscan! Korean! Persian Star! Yugoslavian!), this last one I think may become our signature, house garlic.  ‘Cause you know, everyone needs a signature garlic.

Drumroll please…

The spectacular "Rose du Tarne"


Do you see why I’m in trouble?

So now the real challenge begins.  I clearly need a bed set aside for all of these types to be grown as experiments.  As it is, though, I don’t have space to rotate my tomatoes and potatoes this year unless we create some new beds… so…time to reorganize the garden to create more vegetable beds!  And I guess garlic will go on my Christmas gift list for next fall, while I whittle down my choices so that I can keep to the same 70 or so bulbs that should get us through the year and that I can fit in the space I have.  Hope I haven’t created the same problems for you!

If you’d like to contact Adele or get a copy of her dangerous, corrupting garlic list, her family’s Legacy Farm (no website) is on Koksilah Rd, with the red roofs, just as you turn off the Island Highway.  I can pass along her email if anyone is interested.


Planning the Fall and Winter Garden

Apologies for the long absence! What can I say? I was ready for a new spring look.

We came back from our trip and hit the ground running!  We have been catching up on the weeding, the planting, the weeding, and the harvesting.  We’re also getting ready for a sailing trip this weekend, and then I go back to work next week.  There are many blog posts yet to be written on all we’ve been up to, including my continuing work on the Grand Master Plan…

But Monday I picked up an excellent local book (the author is on Saltspring Island, which matches our local microclimate almost exactly) on winter gardening at the library, and now that all the summer crops are in, I’m turning my attention to planning for the next harvest.  Last year we had some greens and tomatoes through the end of November, but my meager attempts at having the garden produce beyond that didn’t come to much.  I planted some brassicas (cabbage, brussel sprouts, etc) by direct seeding too late, and then the slugs got them all.  I tried some nursery seedlings, but again, it was late in the season and they were all root bound and didn’t really produce before the weather turned.

Last year my major stumbling block was getting my head around the idea of planting for fall before the summer had even kicked in!  But this year I am prepared and determined.  Our infrastructure (new beds, better soil, irrigation, hoops) has set us up for so much success, I have no excuses!  And now, with Linda Gilkeson’s small book Year-Round Harvest: Winter Gardening on the Coast to help, I’m ready to start my seeds.

The book walks readers through what crops work here, which ones need any kind of cover, and what kind works for the author, and when and how to harvest.  It’s a nice local and simple (empowering!) complement to some of the bibles of year-round harvesting, usually a la Eliot Coleman.  Gilkeson also helpfully confirms Steve Solomon’s crop rotation suggestions for the Maritime Northwest.  The process, which I really got my head around as I was doing my garden planning this past winter, is much easier than trying to adapt the conventional rotation schedules to our 3-4 crop growing season.

The jist is that early spring crops are usually done by sometime in July (with this year’s late spring, I’m estimating late in the month), and can then be followed by fall or winter plantings.  Those early crops could include those that have been overwintered, like garlic or fava/broad beans, also usually done in July.  Summer crops–long season ones like tomatoes, potatoes, squash, etc–need to go in the ground in May or June, and so usually need to follow either a cover crop (like winter rye that goes in the fall before and whose spring growth gets tilled under in early spring), or in a lucky year, a very early planting of salad greens or other quick early crops.

So rather than focusing on following a particular crop with another particular crop (ie roots follow leafies), I look at my beds and what’s in them.  I have a list of the early crops (peas, spinach, beets, spring lettuces, etc) and pick one to plant that hasn’t been there in the last few years.  Then I pick a fall crop that hasn’t been there before and put that in next.  When that crop is done, I can either mulch for the winter/early spring, or put in a short spring cover crop early in the new year.  This bed will become a long-season crop the next year, to be followed in October-ish by an overwintering crop (sprouting broccoli or a cover crop), that will then be replaced by a spring crop come March/April.  Still with me? 🙂

My next step today was to figure out how much to plant.  Remember that for winter crops (I’m planning November to March to be conservative this year), plants are surviving, but not growing.  So you need to plant enough that will be full grown by November (or by the first killing frost) that you can consume the whole plant when you harvest it.  Some plants will start to regrow in the early spring as soon as the weather warms up a little, but they will be slow.  Chard and kale, for instance, will be harvested to the stalk as mature leaves for cooking, but will regrow small leaves in spring that can be used for early salads.

I’m anticipating having salad greens, tomatoes, beans, carrots, parsnips, zuchini, cucumbers (?), chard, and kale (and possibly a fall pea crop?) from my summer plantings right through until frost (or close to it), so I’m really planting now for the post-frost harvest: winter brassicas (cabbage and brussel sprouts, plus overwintering broccoli and cauliflower), extra kale and chard, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, beets, winter Asian greens, spinach, arugula and other mesclun, etc.  My winter leeks were started in February and are already in the ground, growing slowly but surely.  Some of these crops will get a hoop house when the cold temps hit, some will be fine without any protection (unless we get an unusual cold snap), and I’m also planning to do some greens in pots in the greenhouse.

I’m estimating how much produce I think we’ll eat each week, and planting accordingly.  So in a given week, I’m projecting we’ll eat: 1/4 cabbage, 6 carrots, 1 lb brussel sprouts, 1/4 rutabaga, 2 parsnips, 1 turnip, 2-3 bunches of chard, kale, beet greens and/or spinach, 2 beets, plus salad greens and stir-fry greens.  Multiply these amounts by 20 weeks, and then I hope I have enough space!  These winter harvests will be supplemented by crops in storage (onions, garlic, apples, potatoes, squash, canned tomatoes, and possibly frozen summer produce and berries, and hopefully our own dried beans) and probably a few purchased veggies like mushrooms.  I’m also determined to harvest and dry more of our herbs this year–they are so much better than what I usually have in the pantry!

That yummy-looking winter diet (all too familar as we’ve been eating it until VERY recently!) also has some implications for my Grand Master Plan, which includes selling some produce through the summer.  In order to figure out how much I can sell, I need to know how much of the summer crop I need to save to sustain us through the winter.  The answer seems to be, in this climate, not much.  We have gone through most of our stored tomatoes, but still have a few cans of both sauce and diced, and that was in a poor tomato year.  I don’t tend to cook with a lot of frozen produce through the winter as we try to eat seasonally anyway, but I was pretty frustrated when the grocery store brussel sprouts and chard that I was buying this Februrary were from Mexico!

So we’ll see how this goes–there’s no way to plan perfectly when it’s all new territory, and I know many PNW gardeners preserve a lot more than me to be self-sufficient in produce year-round.  It’s probable that they know something I don’t!  But we all have to start somewhere!

I Could be Harvesting…

A couple of days of much warmer weather and sunshine after some intermittent showers have meant that many of our early spring crops are growing by leaps and bounds.  Let the record show that as of May 10th (give or take!), I can start harvesting crops in reasonable amounts–ie not just herbs etc for garnish!  I could be snipping lettuce, spinach, chives, rhubarb, pea shoots, sage, purple sprouting broccoli, radishes, arugula, asparagus….all the early spring edibles that we’ve been waiting so long through the winter for.

But for some reason, although I’m thrilled beyond measure to see all these lovely treats growing each day, and though I’m excited to see the carrots, beets, chard, kale, and scallions sprouting up nicely, I’m just not inspired to start eating.  Every time I’m ready to get a meal together, I contemplate the options in the garden, and none of it seems appealing.

Could it be because even though the plants say “May” the weather still says “March?” And consequently I’m still cooking simple pastas and soups, and craving storage crops?  Or perhaps it’s because I’ve been so busy finishing up the teaching semester and squeezing in all the gardening time I can that all I can bring myself to “cook” are sandwiches?  Or perhaps it’s just being out of the habit of eating out of the garden after a winter of being back at the grocery store?  It’s only been a few months, really, but I do feel a little out of sync.  It could be that I’m so wrapped up in the planning and planting that my stomach’s forgotten what it’s all for.

Maybe it’s all of the above?  Anyone else in a food slump despite the excitement of the burgeoning life outside?

By the way, I realized today in glancing at my blog stats, that if we all work together I could pass TWO milestones on my blog-iversary.  I’m just a few posts away from 100, but I’m also just 10 comments away from 300!  So if you’ve been lurking and looking for a reason to say hi, please do!  And thanks so much to my regular readers and commenters for all the thought-provoking and chuckle-inducing messages over this year! 🙂

Slow Food at Pizzeria Primastrada

You may remember that I excitedly joined Slow Food Vancouver Island this past June.  The AGM was being held at Hilary’s Cheese just down the road, and I was ready to meet some other food-obsessed neighbours.  That event was lots of fun, but there haven’t been any since.  Until this past week.

The invite was tempting: dinner at Pizzeria Prima Strada in Victoria, $25 for all the antipasti and pizza you could eat, a tour and discussion of the wood-fired pizza oven and cooking techniques, and then the annual cookbook exchange.  Now that’s a party!

It was a beautiful, rejuvenating evening that did just what slow food is supposed to do: nourish all of the senses as well as the soul.  The new Bridge St location of the pizzeria is beautiful.  It embodies that wonderful mix of warm and casual west coast with a recycled industrial edge.  Note the concrete countertops/ bar and the amazing light fixtures (holes punched in the steel by the owners 🙂 ):

And Drumroaster coffee!

The star of the kitchen is the oven–I wish I could remember everything that our generous hosts–owners Geoff and Cristen Dallas–told us about how it came to be.  I do remember that it was built to the detailed specifications of the traditional Napoli craftsmen and that even when the early staff come in to prep in the morning, the oven is still at 500 degrees.  They use the heat to proof their baguettes and then cook them once the temperature comes down a little more.  Then it gets fired up to its full heat to cook the pizzas for just a couple of minutes all afternoon and evening.  Amazing!

The meal that came out of that oven was stunning.  We started with antipasti platters of cheese, cured meat, quince paste and jelly squares, chunky tapenade and slices of oven baked thin focaccia.  I paced myself with some idea of what was coming, and I’m glad I did.

Next up were large salad bowls of bitter greens dressed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, then came the pasta.  Homeade tagliatelle with rabbit and pomodori sauce.  On this night, although I didn’t deliberately help myself to slices of meats on their own, I was not a vegetarian.  The pasta (and the rabbit) was delicious, and despite knowing there was still pizza to come, I had two small helpings.  Gorgeous!

There were 5 types of pizza, and I didn’t try them all (didn’t pace myself quite enough 🙂 ).  On my first bite of the Margherita, though, I was surprised.  I’ve read lots about Neapolitan pizza over the years, but I’ve never been to Italy, and never tried the real thing.  I always assumed that the thin crust would mean there would be some crispiness that would complement all those flash-roasted toppings.  But this pizza was chewy and soft–melt in your mouth!  I asked Geoff about what makes the perfect pizza, what I should be looking for.  He said the goal is a slight bit of crispiness only on the pizza’s outer edge, which should also be characterized by large holes.  The pizza crust of this pizza looks like it has a deep edge, but it actually doesn’t.  The illusion is formed because without the toppings weighing it down, the edge puffs up light and bubbly.  The rest of the crust should be chewy and soft; “we’re not making a cracker,” he told me.  Who knew?!

There was a funghi pizza that melted my heart–I love wild mushrooms and this was loaded, and just touched by the occasional crumble of gorgonzola.  My favorite, though, was the special that night.  I don’t remember all of it, and it’s possible I’m mixing up carmelized onions with the gorgonzola on the funghi.  But I remember the smokiness of the grilled radicchio, the salty smokiness of the house cured ham, and that the whole thing tasted as good as anything I’ve ever eaten.  Sorry there aren’t more photos!

The whole evening was memorable for its conversations, new connections, and much laughter around the communal wood tables flanked by the stacked split wood for the oven.  I can’t wait to bring the Skipper down for another experience, can’t wait for the next Slow Food event, and can’t wait to build our own wood-fired pizza oven in the back yard!  (Oh yes, there are plans….)

PS: For more detail on the pizza and the oven’s story, check out Don Genova’s blog–he’s also the illustrious Slow Food Vancouver Island convivium leader.

Moosemeat Stew

As a tradesman, the Skipper is a bit of an unusual breed.  He’s gained quite the reputation amongst his crew over the years about the food he brings in his lunchbox.  There are always lots of dried and fresh fruit and nuts, and some oddly-coloured vegetarian lentil stews and curries and soups have been eyed with concern by his peers.

His work mates unpack some predictable snacks and junk food, and they are largely meat and potatoes kinds of men.  They are generally not adventurous eaters and the Skipper gets lots of ribbing.  But there’s a twist.

Most of the meat these men unpack from their lunch boxes looks familiar on the surface: burgers, pepperoni, salami.  What’s not obvious at first glance though is what kind of meat it is.  Most of these men hunt and fish for a considerable portion of their food.  The burgers and steaks are elk (and occasionally bear), the pepperoni and sausage are deer or moose.  The Skipper used to claim to be a vegetarian, but he found those elk burgers hard to resist!

Though they may be meat and potatoes guys, and as far from hippie leftist environmentalists (like me! 🙂 ) as you can reasonably get on this coast, they are often deeply concerned about where their food comes from too, and they can be highly suspicious of factory farmed meat.  Many of them raise (or have raised) their own chickens and turkeys for meat birds, “so we know how they’re raised and what they’ve been fed.”  And some of their wives are AMAZING cooks (and just plain amazing women!).

When we get together with these families, we steer clear of politics and religion and other touchy subjects, but we can all talk for hours about food and the stories of how we caught it, grew it, cooked it, enjoyed it.  Anthony Bourdain argued recently that it’s meat in particular that brings people together in these communal connections, but I think food in general can do it.  These men know I’m vegetarian; it’s just one more way that I’m a little quirky.  But that’s ok.

Which brings us to the moosemeat.

So the Skipper has a friend and colleague who was headed off moose hunting recently, and he tried to talk the Skipper into taking some home.  A moose is a huge animal, and there would be more meat than any one hunter can manage without help!  The Skipper was more than happy to take some, but he wasn’t sure how I’d react.  He brought home 4 steaks and cooked up two on the first night.  One was for me!  I had a bite or two to taste it.  It was fine, tasted a little like liver.  It’s incredibly lean meat–almost looked like a kidney in colour!  But usually when I taste meat these days, I think, “meh”.  It’s ok, not repulsive or anything.  Intellectually, I’m fine with the idea of eating meat from these kinds of sources.  But when I taste it, I certainly don’t think, “where has this been all my life and where can I get more!”

So the second 2 steaks sat in the fridge for a couple of days, and I didn’t want them to go to waste.  I started thinking about moosemeat stew.  I thought, if I made a big stew with lots of veggies, then I could happily eat it, and I’d leave the meat in chunks so that they would be easy to pick out and send the Skipper’s way.  I headed to google for recipes.  Believe it or not, I’ve never made any kind of meat stew!  Sarah Palin’s name came up a lot in the google lists.

I dredged the cubes of moosemeat in seasoned flour and browned them in butter.  I took them out and carmelized an onion in the fat that remained.  I deglazed the pan with some wine, added potatoes and carrots and some thyme all from the garden, some crushed garlic cloves and a bay leaf, some rosemary.  I put the meat back in and covered it all with veggie stock.  It simmered for an hour or so and then I added a few diced roma tomatoes and checked the seasoning.  Simmered the stew for another 45 minutes or so and called up the Skipper to test the meat.  It was ready, so I made up some dumplings and added them to the pot, closed the lid and simmered another 15 minutes.  Done!

It was AWESOME.  I’ve made a lot of vegetable stews in my day, but you just don’t get that flavour right.  There wasn’t that much moose in it, but what was there was delicious and added a ton of flavour.  I told the Skipper (half teasing) to go back to his friend and tell him that he was allowed to bring home some more.  🙂

I have to say that this was one of the most satisfying meals I’ve made.  It was rich with flavour, memory (of stews of my childhood), and human tradition.  It is still a unique feeling to me to cook a comfort food meal like this, one that people have made for uncountable generations, with almost no ingredients from the grocery store (butter, flour, salt, pepper).

Moments like these still feel a little strange.  I feel deeply connected, unexpectedly, to my ancestors–both immediate and ancient–as I meet these food needs more directly and outside of the food chain that I’m so accustomed to.  It’s wonderful, but also unfamiliar.  It feels like change.  And it’s addictive.

October Harvest Reflections

I am very, very proud.

It’s October 3rd, and we have met 95% of our produce needs since June.

This has been our first year on the journey towards food self-sufficiency; a project we embarked upon purely by gut instinct, with no real plan or even with a clear sense of objective.  No “within 5 years we’ll produce everything we eat” or complex rules about what we would be allowed to purchase and under what circumstances.

I have great admiration for those who have been able to do any of these things; we just have been juggling moving communities, jobs, learning about our new home and land and what plants are even already planted, and I wasn’t really interested in outlining a specific project on top of all that quite yet.

But we did buy this place with the recognition that it came with a lot of established food plants (apples, kiwis, raspberries, currants, blueberries, tayberries, blackberries, grapes) and a ton of potential to expand them.  Growing a lot of our food has been on our list of dreams for some time.  And I knew I might not be working this past summer, and so I did get serious in my garden planning.  Books tend to say sensible things for beginners like “start small” and “master a few veggies and square feet before expanding” and “I wouldn’t advise going bigger than 200 sq ft the first year.”  I decided instead to read about how much I might need to grow to sustain us through the year, trying to get a sense of how much I could produce from the space we had, and even wondering if it might be possible to produce enough from our backyard to earn some extra income.  In other words, I dove in headfirst!

For the last 4 months, despite many ups and downs, including a not very good year for growing many things, we have eaten almost exclusively from our backyard garden.  We bought some cherries and nectarines, and bought a few extra veggies when I cooked for a couple of potlucks and wanted special recipes, but other than that, nothing except some garlic.  I’m actually amazed at how straightforward it’s been!

Now I’m starting to look ahead, and wondering how long we might be able to keep this up before I have to resort to the winter supplementation.  I know in the long run growing enough year round and storing a few crops is doable, but it won’t be this year.  At some point, I’ll have to break down.  But when?

One of the MANY things I’ve learned this year is the importance of disciplined succession planting.  To really provide a constant supply of food, I need to come up with a planting schedule and, more importantly, stick to it.  I’m a great planner.  Not always a great follow-though-er.  At the moment, I’m eyeing my fall/winter garden plot with a tiny bit of concern.

I still have lots of chard, kale, and tomatoes going strong.  The tomatoes will keep going until frost (in eating quantity if not preserving quantity), which around here shouldn’t be for another month at least.  The chard and kale will keep going well beyond that.  There are 80 lbs of potatoes stored, which will keep us for a while, and at some point I’ll bring in the non-ripened tomatoes and apparently we can keep ripening them indoors as long as they hold out–often Christmas.  We’ve got a few pole beans left on the vine, and a few raspberries are still going too.  The grapes I’m going to start harvesting today, and they’ll mostly become jelly.  We’re hoping to meet all of the Skipper’s jam needs for the year ahead, and between the berries, the grapes, and the currants, it’s looking promising, although the final tally isn’t in yet.

We will have some spinach, lettuce, carrots, beet greens, and new kinds of kale ready for picking in a couple of weeks.  We got so much salad out of one planting this summer that I got lazy about re-planting, and as a result, I miss salad!  All these tomatoes and no lettuce to eat them with. 😦  I know I could go spend the .99 at the Farmer’s market on a head of greens, but it’s the principle of the thing!

At the beginning of August, I virtuously planted out fall, winter, and overwintering brassicas: brussel sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower.  I haven’t had any of those all summer either, and I can’t wait!  Unfortunately, the first plantings all got eaten.  I went to the nursery and bought seedlings, some of which have done well, others of which were likely too root-bound by the time I picked them up, and don’t look so good.  But I figured we’ll just eat whatever they come to, even if it’s not much.

Later today, I’m hoping to plant my garlic, and the weather’s been so good (finally!) that I might try a small patch of gai lan and maybe some more corn salad.  The Skipper’s also been suggesting that I try planting some lettuce, etc in pots/trays in the unheated greenhouse to see if they will last a little longer.  If I’m feeling really organized, I’ll give that a try.

There’s lots that I’ve learned, mistakes that I’ve made, and our mantra around here these days is “next year will be different!”  But next weekend is Thanksgiving here in Canada, and I know that one of the things I am grateful for is that we have had much food and that we will continue to have food for another couple of months at least.  Not the most varied diet we’ve ever eaten, but that’s ok.  Next year will be different!  🙂

Our Refrigerator is (Almost) Empty

Could you live without a fridge?

A year or two back, this was a hot topic among those striving for the ultimate sustainable lifestyle.  For those in the Riot for Austerity trying to cut their energy and resource use by 80%, the refrigerator came in for close scrutiny.  It’s a huge energy suck–often the biggest draw in the house besides heating.  So there were many who experimented with unplugging the fridge all together.  Usually this meant taking lots of things out of the fridge that don’t need to be there (most condiments, for instance), buying smaller amounts of fresh foods more often, European market style, and learning to do without a few things–like ice water or ice cream–that many folks around the world do without too.

Many who experimented were surprised to find out that they didn’t miss their fridges.  They were able to modify coolers or ice boxes for short term use and didn’t miss the constant electric hummmmmmmm or the charge in their utility bills.  Others found that there were a few really important things that needed refrigeration (breast milk came up a few times!), but that they could easily make do with a bar fridge or other, much smaller, appliance.

I watched all of this with some bemusement at the time and generally felt this was a more radical move than was necessary.  We moved into our condo and I LOVED my brand new, highly efficient, bottom freezer, stainless steel refrigerator.   Every couple of weeks, the Skipper and I would take a trip out to our favorite farm, and we’d come home and STOCK that fridge.  It would be packed with fresh produce from top to bottom.  My most important criteria in a fridge became large, deep crispers with humidity control–the more the better.

When we moved, we knew we would need a new fridge at some point.  The one we’ve inherited is 10 years old, white, the seals get moldy, and the freezer is up top.  The crispers are ok, but they are at the very bottom, and you have to open the fridge door REALLY wide to access them.  There’s also not enough tall storage on the door…you know…for the wine bottles. 🙂  We are such geeks that we have spent more than one Saturday walking through appliance stores drooling over the wares…

Most importantly, I thought we would need a bigger fridge.  After all, I thought, if I was stocking the last one full with the produce from the farm, surely with my garden producing well, I would need something even larger?

Well here it is, the peak of the harvest season (such as it is), and our fridge has been on the verge of empty for months.  It holds eggs, cheese, milk, juice, condiments and sometimes leftovers.  And the occasional piece of fruit that is creeping too quickly toward overripeness.

The bulk of what we’re eating is, of course, in the garden!  And although I could harvest all the carrots now and keep them in the crisper, there doesn’t seem to be much point when they might just get a little bigger if I leave them in the ground.  It is more convenient sometimes to harvest a couple of heads of lettuce and assorted spicy greens, wash and dry them all at once and keep them in a bucket for easy salads over a few days, but even that isn’t constant or even essential to freshness.  Then there are the tomatoes, which should never even see the fridge, and so are taking up the dining table (we eat on the couch, of course!).

The pantry is filling up slowly with potatoes, jam, and with a little luck, canned tomatoes, and the freezer is PACKED.  Crab bait, crab, salmon, berries, a few loaves of bread, and the odd Costco purchase buried in the bottom.  Can’t live without that.  But the fridge?  I’m rethinking what we might need.  Maybe we don’t need a full on kitchen reno to get some more counter space.  Maybe we just need a bar fridge and a countertop swapped in where the standard one is today.  Might save some money and energy too.

The Crabby Life

As I alluded to in my last post, these days the crabbing is FINE.  The crabbing life is a new routine for me, and I thought that it might be unfamiliar to many out there, especially those without much experience on the coasts.  I’ve also been reflecting on the idea of doing a few posts on the daily experiences of sustainable living–especially for those dreaming and wondering what it might feel like to live a little differently.  So if you’re stuck in an office looking at the fall rains, or if you’ve only ever eaten “imitation crab meat” from the grocery store or in a California roll (or both!), come with me on what has become our evening routine…

Evenings on Cowichan Bay

The phone usually rings about ten to five.  “Almost ready?” The Skipper calls when he’s a few minutes from home, and I start getting ready to head to the boat.  Sometimes I walk the 15 minutes to the marina, other evenings I hop in the van when he swings by.  Skipper comes in and grabs the bucket, some fuel, his old work gloves, and some bait from the freezer by the back door.

Crabs are the scavengers of the ocean floor.  They are notorious for eating EVERYTHING (they’re the ants or the cockroaches of the sea, really!), but they seem to particularly like fresh remains.  So folks around these parts save the bones and assorted carcasses from the salmon or other creatures they’ve caught through the season to feed the crab.

In the early evenings, the winds on the Bay are usually dying out, and we spend a peaceful few minutes motoring out in our wee sailboat out to our traps.  It’s a chance for us to unwind from the day a bit and hang out together without any distractions.  If there’s still a little wind, we might put up the sails for a half hour just to relax a little longer.

Our traps are down between 100 and 180 feet, depending on the location.  I haven’t thought much about those distances, other than to think about where the crabs might be (they like deep water).  But the Skipper observed this evening that these discrepancies mean that within a few hundred yards, the ocean bottom rises up 8 stories and then dips back down again!  There’s a huge hill under the water that we don’t even realize is there.  Amazing!

The trap’s location is marked with a small red and white buoy–you can just see it by the rail of the boat in the photo above.

Once we get to the marker, the real work begins.  I take the tiller and try to hold us in one place, while the Skipper gets ready.  He hooks the buoy with a pole, and then begins to haul the trap up by hand, up 200 feet of rope!  You can imagine how much effort that takes in the resistance of the water!  But he doesn’t seem to mind. 🙂  In fact, all through his teens growing up on the East Coast of Canada, he fished commercially for cod with his uncles.  They were “handlining” or “jigging”, which meant spending several hours a day pulling up 10-30 lb cod fish on a small fishing line with a hook, one after the other.  He swears that’s where his muscles come from!

The Skipper at Work

As the trap gets closer to the surface, he can start to tell how full it might be! (Either that, or we’ve caught an octopus, a giant starfish/sunfish, or hooked an old boot 🙂 )  Much anticipation until the trap breaks through the water….

Then, if we’re lucky…


We can keep 4 per fishing license per day.  So between the 2 of us, we’re looking for 8 males that are big enough to pass muster (there’s a regulated size limit).  Small ones and females go back into the deeps.

If they can get out, they're too small!

Big ones go in the bucket where they wrestle for space and make funny whispery noises to each other–almost like they’re smacking their lips.  If they had lips.  Maybe that was me.

The bait gets replaced and the Skipper hefts the trap back over the side.  We’re so low-tech that he measures the depth by the feet of rope left after the trap hits bottom.  Simple, but it works!

Once we’re home, the big pot gets some water under the steamer basket and gets set on the stove.  The Skipper has the slightly grisly job of “dressing” the crab, which means he pops the big back shells off them and rinses out all the guts and brains.  They get cracked in half and stacked in the pot, then steamed for 15-20 minutes.  Then we usually eat dinner–usually not crab!

We’re stocking the freezer these days, so after dinner, once the beasties have cooled off, we spend the evening shelling and then vacuum sealing the meat.  Crab in pasta, sushi, chowder, pizza…it’s going to be a good winter.

It’s a time consuming routine, and my hands are toughening up from cracking shells every evening, but it’s very satisfying.  And still feels like a miracle to bring wild foods–exotic and special when purchased in the store–into our staple diet.  And shelling, like so much of the fun of self-sufficiency, is easy to do while being entertained by episodes of The Simpsons or Trailer Park Boys! 🙂

The next day, I’m faced with a big smelly pile of shells.  There’s so much nutrient value in there that I’ve been loathe to throw the pile away.  But they can’t go in the regular compost pile, or we’d have every cat and raccoon for miles around in our backyard.  So I’ve been burying the shells in the trenches where I’ve just pulled up our potatoes.  I’m hoping by next summer they’ll be broken down enough to feed some happy plants.  Next, I have to find out what veggies like calcium!  (I know about tomatoes, but they’re in the potato family and can’t go there next year…any ideas?)